To Take A Stand

Last week, I was invited by the AFP’s Office of Strategic Studies and Strategy Management, the National Defense College of the Philippines and the DFA’s Foreign Service Institute to talk on this topic in Camp Aguinaldo, specifically, on what an “independent foreign policy” should look like.

Here are excerpts of what I delivered:

Last year, we broke new ground. President Rodrigo Duterte asserted that the country must pursue an independent foreign policy. We’ve been charting our own direction since then, blazing new trails where we’ve never been before. We’re now lighting our own path trying to situate our country in a sweet spot with all nations without losing sight of the risky natural and man-made environment around us.

Our diplomatic history has been that of dependence on another’s foreign policy. Henceforth, our foreign policy will reject foreign meddling. Time honored principles of sovereign equality; noninterference and commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes will be observed. Our national interest must now come first, but, let me add, without forgetting that we live in an interdependent world.

He dispelled unfounded fears that he had capitulated to China’s charm offensive by bringing up the issue of the West Philippine Sea and stressed our commitment to UNCLOS at the 28th and 29th Asean Summit and Related Summits in Laos. He called on leaders to support individual and collective efforts to observe a rules-based approach in resolving maritime disputes.

In 2015, former senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani wrote in an article that the pursuit of an independent foreign policy was “not a ‘go-it-alone’” foreign policy. Neither is it the absence of any alliances. Rather, it’s a long-term, deliberate government policy, sustained by future administrations, to hold the government and its people responsible for ensuring the nation’s security.

For Gen. Joe Almonte, US-China relations will define the future of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. According to him, two questions are in order: Will America go to war over the South China Sea (SCS)? And, similarly, will China go to war over them?

On the first question: If China controls the SCS without fighting or firing a shot, the negative impact on America’s global leadership will be irreparable. It will be a global game-changer. While America may have the capacity to undertake any action anywhere in the world to protect its core interests, winning a war with China is another story.

On the second question, China has made clear to the world that it has indisputable sovereignty over the SCS including the West Philippine Sea (WPS), within the fictional 9-dash line, and will defend it by any means possible. It rejected the July 12, 2016 Arbitral ruling that, among others, invalidated the 9-dash line. Its actions in the SCS/WPS are integral to China’s dream of extending its economic and military power beyond the 21st Century.

In 2012, the US brokered a deal for the Philippines and China to simultaneously withdraw its vessels from Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines complied but China did not. This is the context whereby the Philippines rose to defend its core interests, including its maritime entitlements, by filing a case in The Hague after fruitlessly trying to engage China in bilateral talks since 1995.

When the ruling favored the Philippines, President Duterte declared the need for an independent foreign policy, which isn’t for or against anybody, but being equidistant to everyone. He deliberately omitted any mention of the arbitral ruling at the ASEAN+ Summit in Laos but made it clear that when the time comes to negotiate with China, he will keep within the four corners of the ruling.

For Philippine ambassador to China, Jose Sta. Romana, the overall context of the Philippine’s independent foreign policy is the emerging regional power shift in the Asia-Pacific. Mindful of the strategic environment, Ambassador Sta. Romana identified the three major elements of Duterte’s independent foreign policy.

First is lessening Manila’s dependence on Washington while maintaining their historic alliance. Second, improving relations with China. Third, improving relations with nontraditional partners such as Russia and India. In today’s complex security landscape, an independent foreign policy must find a middle ground to advance and protect our national interests. It’s a hedging strategy.

The idea is to “acquire as many returns from different powers as possible… while simultaneously seeking to offset longer-term risks.”

It requires quiet diplomacy instead of acoustics or megaphone diplomacy. Because of the complicated nature of this dispute, the immediate priority is not about solving the dispute but about managing the situation to prevent a crisis or escalation.

The sudden shift in our foreign policy led many to decry it as appeasing China, compounded by President Duterte’s personal beef with America. Ambassador Sta. Romana calls this perception as a “profound misunderstanding.” What we need to do, he says, is combine engagement with deterrence to maintain a delicate balancing act in an evolving security risk environment.

I believe President Duterte has done just that. Instead swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other, what actually has happened is a rebalancing that’s keeping the regional security environment on even keel. While it has diffused tensions between the US and China, and between the Philippines and China, our traditional alliances and agreements remain firm.

Preventive diplomacy conducted quietly has proven better than acoustically assertive behavior without anything backing us up when push gets to shove. Despite its military superiority, the US is careful not to trigger an accidental conflict. It shows its displeasure through Freedom of Navigation Operations but does nothing else; it prefers preventive diplomacy to armed confrontation. So, who are we to think and do otherwise?

What we should do is use our time wisely to build our defenses. We must choose people with the right national security mind-set, develop our skills, and acquire adequate resources to protect the country as best as we can. An independent foreign policy is meaningless if we don’t have the means to protect and uphold our national interests while striving for peace with goodwill to all and malice toward none.

That is what our independent foreign policy should look like. Have a Holy Christmas and a blessed 2018!


Rafael M. Alunan III served in the Cabinet of President Corazon C. Aquino as Secretary of Tourism, and in the Cabinet of President Fidel V. Ramos as Secretary of Interior and Local Government.